The Fiat 500 Sport is a little different from your bog-standard 500. The 1.4-litre, four-cylinder engine chucks out the same 101 bhp as the base model, but you get sportier, 16-inch rims, a boot spoiler and a sporty steering wheel. You also get Fiat’s five-speed Dualogic paddle-shift gearbox as standard, as well as a loaded options list, including leather seats, traction control, Bluetooth connectivity and voice activation.
It might cost upwards of Dh78,000 new (I paid a fair amount less for my ‘second hand’ model with 100 km on the clock), but you seem to get quite a lot for your money. This review aims to put that assumption to the test.
Before we go any further, though, it should be noted that the Fiat 500 was updated in 2016. The new 500S features a swanky TFT screen on the dash, and a few more luxuries inside. Still, if you’d bought the 2014 model year second-hand, you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference between it and the new one.
Obviously outside looks are objective, but I think this model, in red, with the rims, the spoiler and all the sporty pretensions, looks rather good. And it certainly doesn’t look dated against the new model, which has only had subtle styling tweaks applied to it.
I’ve received plenty of stick from some people for buying what they consider to be a girl’s car, but in this guise, I think it looks reasonably asexual. What’s more, I still believe the 500 to be the most stylish of the old throwbacks – the Mini has somehow lost a lot of its charm over the years, and the VW Beetle is just, well, not that good-looking. And because of this, despite its low price, I’d like to think that you could rock up at a nice hotel with a 500 and the valet wouldn’t tell you to clear off.
Moving inside, on this model, the interior is as well appointed as you can reasonably expect from a small city car. The black leather seats are superb, as is the red stitching holding all the material together. There’s a 500S logo etched expertly into each of the front seats, which I like – it’s a nice little reminder that you’ve got something a little more premium than the standard car.
Indeed, ‘premium’ is a word that you easily assign to the 500 Sport – it might be a cheap little runabout compared to a lot of other metal on the market, but nothing you actually touch feels cheap. All the plastics are solid and well manufactured, and where possible, Fiat has added little dashes of aluminium to give an overall quality feel. Buttons depress with a satisfying thump, and even the indicator click is less tinny than you’d expect.
The Sport steering wheel illustrates the premium going-over perfectly. It could be straight out of a Golf GTI, this thing – it’s got a racing-car, shape with a flat bottom, and is wide enough to give you a handful when you’re fully gripped. The materials aren’t bad, either. Behind the wheel, you get solid paddle-shifts with rubbery grips on the under-side. It’s all very well gauged to feel, for lack of a better word, expensive – or, at least, more expensive than it is.
The famous Bakelite-style dashboard isn’t the same colour as the bodywork on this model, and instead matches the grey-and-black motif of the interior in general.
In terms of practicality, the 500 gives you way more interior space than you’d expect. It’s a tiny car, but Fiat has done a wonderful job in maximising head and leg room – it’s actually bigger inside than the equivalent-generation Mini Cooper. You don’t feel cramped sitting inside, even with a passenger. Leg room for the rear seats isn’t bad – you could easily get a couple of adults in there for a short to medium journey. And the boot will happily swallow up a week’s worth of shopping.
In terms of the drive, there are more positives than negatives. We’ll start with the negatives. For a car with sporting pretensions, the first thing you notice is the surprisingly high driving position. I guess Fiat has designed it this way to aid visibility, but considering the windows are tiny, visibility was never going to be much good anyway. I’d have happily exchanged that modest increase for a more hunkered-down, sporty driving position. That said, as with any car, spend enough time with it and you get used to the position.
You notice other problems when you start the 500 up and get going. In ‘Normal’ mode, the throttle has a ridiculously soft and squidgy feel – you really have to put the pedal to the metal to get going anywhere. That’s something that is extremely difficult to get used to – you may find yourself at a busy roundabout, hoping to jump in, only to find nothing happens until you really floor it, by which time you’re half-way across and going too quickly. And added to this, the gearbox really doesn’t like that kind of treatment when it’s in ‘auto mode – changes are too slow and they make the car lurch forwards and backwards. I suppose the only saving grace is that the steering is still reasonably responsive – you can place the car really easily, regardless of the mode you’re in. But, really, all the ‘Normal’ mode is good for is trundling around residential areas, slowly, when there’s no traffic.
Stick the 500 in ‘Sport’ mode, however, and everything changes. The throttle response is so greatly improved that it feels like you’ve got twice the power; the steering becomes sharper; the brakes are more delicate; and the engine starts to make a bubbly little four-pop noise. It’s all extremely good fun – especially so when you’ve got the Dualogic ‘box in manual mode.
Indeed, the one thing that ‘Sport’ mode doesn’t really address is the clunkiness of the automatic gearbox. It’s difficult to describe what’s wrong with it – all you can say is that it’s a little dim-witted. It shifts up too quickly, before you get to 3,000 rpm (where the power really starts to kick in), and yet it takes an age to shift down, which is really noticeable when you’re, say, trundling along in fifth at 90 km/h and looking to overtake.
Regardless, things are much improved when you switch the Dualogic ‘box into manual mode and use the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, or, if you’re so inclined, the tiptronic up- and down-shifts on the gear lever. I don’t see why you’d opt for the latter, though, because using the paddle shifters is a riot. You can rev the nuts out of the little 1.4-litre engine, and then when you get to around 5,000 rpm, you shift upwards and in an instant you’re in the next gear. And I mean ‘instant’ – there’s no lag whatsoever between pulling on the paddle and the ‘box shifting up. I’d wager you’d be quicker in this than you would in a manual. And it’s the same story on the way down – it’ll even blip the revs for you if you’re in a high gear so that you can get straight to the power band.
By this point, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the 500 (in Sport guise or not) isn’t a fast car. It’ll do 0-100 km/h in a little over 10 seconds, meaning it’s easily outrun by a reasonably well-specced SUV. But because it’s such a small car, and you’re so low to the ground, it feels much faster. And things are just made all the more dramatic by the excellent paddle shifters. That said, on a steep hill in anything above second gear, you really do notice the lack of power – without the revs the 500 will really struggle to get up some inclines. Happily, hills are few and far between in Dubai, and on the whole, it feels like Fiat intended the 500 Sport to be ragged all of the time, and so that’s how you naturally drive it – as if your trousers are on fire.
You do, however, sacrifice quite a bit in terms of comfort for the privilege of running about in a big go-kart. Passengers, it seems, don’t appreciate all the hooning about that the car encourages you to do, and that’s down in no small part to the ride, which is reasonably comfortable in ‘Normal’ mode, but stiff as anything in ‘Sport’. It rolls a bit, too, when you take a bend a little too quickly, and it’s in these sorts of situations that you realise those lovely leather seats aren’t the most supportive in the industry.
There are a couple of other niggles – the radio antenna, for example, is pretty rubbish at picking up signal, and the voice activation feature is so useless that Fiat really shouldn’t have bothered at all. And because you’re not allowed to leave it parked in ‘Neutral’, there’s a really quite tedious starting-up process that demands you put your foot on the brake, then switch to ‘Neutral’, then brake again, then switch to first. I’d just like to start it up and put it in Drive like a normal automatic.
But do I really care about these little issues? Nope – as a 500 owner, I couldn’t be happier with this little car. I’m not sure I could call it well-priced or good value, as I’m fairly certain that the much cheaper Toyota Yaris is faster, bigger and almost as fun to drive. But then again, a whole load of cars would no longer exist if car-buying was based purely on facts and figures. And I’m sorry, but just look at it compared to those Japanese boxes. The Fiat brings a little fun, style and luxury to the supermini table – subjective things, I know, but important to a car-lover like myself. Is it worth the money? Probably not, based on specs. But this car has so much personality, and based on the way it makes you feel, it’s worth every penny.